Rich performs a syntactic anal proboscis

Time for Rich’s anal grammar hour…

I was recently reading a press release for PBS’s January 2009 airing of Cyrano de Bergerac (featuring Kevin Kline reprising his role in the Broadway show).

I did a double take when the release described the character as “proboscisly challenged”.

Now, the only thing worse than the unnecessary use of a complex word when a simpler one will do (what’s wrong with “long-nosed”?) is when that use makes the phrase not only more awkward but completely ungrammatical.

Admittedly, I’m a bit overzealous when it comes to grammar — but I’m not as anal as some. For example, I really don’t care if a sentence ends in a preposition, if it makes the sentence easier to read and/or say. “These are the people with whom I’m going” is syntactically correct, but stiff, formal, and laborious, while “These are the people I’m going with” flows better and gets the job done in fewer words and less effort without any excessive mangling.

That said, I can’t forgive the use of “proboscisly”.

Let me put aside grammar for a minute to point out that it’s just plain ugly. Obviously, the author used “proboscis” with the intent of sounding educated and varying his language a bit. But this is just a simple blurb! No reader in his right mind wants to take the time to stop and remember what the fuck a proboscis is, much less make the connection of how it applies to the play. You read “proboscisly”, and your mind comes to a screeching halt, and you wonder not only what the fuck the guy’s talking about, but why the hell he can’t just give it to you straight (no pun intended).

Why so many people think there’s a necessary correlation between obscure vocabulary and intelligent writing I’ll never understand.

Now with that out of the way, let’s perform some syntactical evisceration: Who decided it was okay to randomly add “-ly” to a noun??

I say randomly, because in a certain case, it is allowed. But only if it results in an adjective. For example, you would add “-ly” to a noun like “mother” to describe a person as “motherly”. But saying someone is “motherly challenged” makes no sense. Yes, “maternally challenged” is a correct alternative, although I’m not exactly sure who it would describe. I guess these are a few possibilities:

The lesson here is that being maternally challenged apparently involves the highly pernicious use of cutlery.

But I digress…

When we describe someone as “physically challenged”, it works because the “-ly” is added to an ADJECTIVE to form an ADVERB. As applied to our case, you might say “nasally challenged” (although I’m not sure that’s exactly right semantically).

And speaking of, let’s scratch “proboscis” for a minute and just use “nose”. What could being “nosely challenged” possibly mean? Is the person in question being challenged by a nose? Does he not have a nose? Does he lack a sense of smell (in which case “olfactorily challenged” would be the correct term — still clunky, but at least correct)?

Suppose the reader knows nothing of Cyrano. Of what use is “proboscisly challenged”? All it does is confuse the reader and make the author sound like a pompous ass.

Yet imagine my chagrin when I googled the phrase and found repeated uses!! These are a few of the subjects discussed:

Message to every author prone to similar violations of grammatic integrity: STOP!!

The egregious misuse of grammar is as plain as the end of your…

Okay, I didn’t say it. I seem to have gone proboscisly insane.

Interesting note: I assumed the plural would be “probosces”, but it’s actually “proboscises” or “proboscides”.


4 comments so far

  1. Leonard Zwelling on

    I liked it. I didn’t have to hold my nose to reply. It didn’t stink. Ooops. Did I say that?

  2. Adrienne on

    I think they were being too cute by half. I’m not sure it worked, but it didn’t offend me. Sometimes you just have to hold your proboscis and deal with it. (Fwiw, includes probosces as a plural form.)

  3. […] Courtesy Rich Zwelling, here is why you can’t just add “-ly” to nouns, willy-nilly, and think you’re saying …. […]

  4. AK on

    Your Grandmother Seretta would be proud of you for shedding the light on BAD grammar. And I got a good laugh from your column.


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